Born Errico Caruso (adopted more formal Enrico for stage), February 27 (some sources say 25), 1873, in Naples, Italy; died of pneumonia and peritonitis in 1921 in Naples; son of Marcellino (a mechanic) and Anna (Baldini) Caruso; married Dorothy Park Benjamin, 1918; children: Gloria; (with Ada Giachetti) Rodolfo, Enrico Jr. Education: Studied voice with Guglielmo Vergine, 1891-94, and Vincenzo Lombardi, 1896-97. Worked as laborer, including jobs as mechanic and jute weaver, beginning c. 1883; debuted in L'Amico Francesco at Teatro Nuovo, Naples, 1894; expanded repertoire to include La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida, and Faust, among others; first sang Canio in I Pagliacci, 1896, and Rodolfo in La Boheme, 1897; debuted in La Boheme at La Scala, Milan, 1899; performed internationally, including appearances in Moscow, Buenos Aries, Monte Carlo, and London, beginning in 1899; made first recordings, 1902; debuted in U.S. at Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1903. Appeared in silent films My Cousin and A Splendid Romance, 1918; subject of fictional film biography The Great Caruso, 1950.
Enrico Caruso's ascendancy coincided with the dawn of the twentieth century, when the world of opera was moving away from the contrived bel canto ("beautiful singing") style, with its emphasis on artifice and vibrato, to a verismo ("realism") approach. The warmth and sincerity of his voice--and personality--shone in this more natural style and set the standard for contemporary greats like Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras. Through his exploitation of the nascent phonograph industry, Caruso is also largely responsible for the sweeping interest in opera of the 1910s and '20s. And for this, Stanley Jackson wrote in his book Caruso, he may never be rivaled, for later tenors could not hope to find themselves in a similarly fortuitous position and thus would most certainly "find it more difficult to win such universal affection as the bubbly, warm-hearted little Neapolitan whose voice soared and sobbed from the first wheezy phonographs to bring a new magic into countless lives."
Born in Naples, Italy, in 1873, the third of seven children (early sources erroneously state that he was the 18th of 21), Caruso was raised in squalor. His birthplace, according to Jackson, was a "two-storeyed house, flaky with peeling stucco, [accommodating] several families, who shared a solitary cold-water tap on the landing, and like every other dwelling in that locality it lacked indoor sanitation." As a boy, Caruso received very little formal education; his only training in a social setting came from his church choir, where he displayed a pure voice and a keen memory for songs. More often than not, however, he skipped choir practice to sing with street minstrels for cafe patrons.
At the age of ten Caruso began working a variety of menial jobs--mechanic, jute weaver--but his passion for singing often led him back to the streets. Eight years later, an aspiring baritone named Eduardo Missiano heard Caruso singing by a local swimming pool. Impressed, Missiano took Caruso to his voice teacher, Guglielmo Vergine. Vergine, on hearing Caruso, compared the tenor's voice to "the wind whistling through the chimney," Michael Scott recounted in The Great Caruso. Although he disliked Caruso's Neapolitan cafe style, flashy gestures, and unrefined and unrestrained vocalizing, Vergine finally agreed to accept Caruso as his student. But "the lessons ended after three years," John Kobler wrote in American Heritage, "and Caruso's formal musical training thereafter remained almost as meager as his scholastic education. He could read a score only with difficulty. He played no musical instrument. He sang largely by ear."
On March 15, 1895, Caruso made his professional debut in L'Amico Francesco, a now-forgotten opera by an amateur composer. He was not an immediate sensation. His vocal range was limited; he often had to transpose the musical score down a halftone since he had trouble in the upper register, especially hitting high C. But impresarios who heard Caruso recognized his innate gift and cast him in significant productions such as Faust, Rigoletto, and La Traviata. With stage experience and brief training with another vocal teacher, Vincenzo Lombardo, the singer made steady progress, refining the natural beauty of his voice.
In 1897, studying for the part of Rodolpho in Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme, Caruso went to the composer's villa to secure Puccini's consent of his interpretation. As told by author Jackson, after Caruso sang a few measures of the first-act aria, "Che gelida manima," Puccini "swivelled in his chair and murmured in amazement, 'Who has sent you to me? God?'"
Caruso's instrument was "a voice of the South, full of warmth, charm, and lusciousness," described a commentator of the era who was quoted in Howard Greenfeld's book Caruso. But what truly set Caruso apart--from his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors--was his ability to eliminate the space between singer and listener, to intensify "the emotional effects upon his audience," testified American Heritage contributor Kobler. "His vocalized feelings, variously spiritual, earthy, carnal, seemed to resonate within the hearer's body. Rosa Ponselle, the American soprano who made her debut opposite Caruso, called it 'a voice that loves you.'"
And his timbre was matched by sheer power; at the height of his career, Caruso gave concerts in venues as large as New York City's Yankee Stadium without microphones and was clearly heard by all. Still, he reached his greatest audience, across both distance and time, through the small, recorded medium of the phonograph. "Few performers deserve ... recognition more than Caruso," David Hamilton proclaimed in the New York Times. "[His] records made him the universal model for later generations of tenors, while his reputation played a major role in establishing the phonograph socially and economically."
Caruso made his first recording on April 11, 1902, in a hotel suite in Milan, Italy. Over the remaining 19 years of his life he made an additional 488 recordings, almost all for the Victor label. He earned more than two million dollars from recording alone, the company almost twice that. But, most important, his recordings brought grand opera to the uninitiated. Millions cried along with his version of Canio's sobbing "Vesti la giubba," from I Pagliacci. The development of the American opera audience from a rarefied community at the turn of the century to a diverse populace in modern times can be directly attributed to Caruso's recordings.
But Caruso's allure was not solely the result of his singing. "Quick to laughter and to tears, amorous, buffoonish, ... speaking a comically fractured English, round and paunchy, Caruso presented an image that appealed enormously to multitudes of ordinary Americans," Kobler pointed out. Indeed, his offstage behavior was as interesting to the public as that of his onstage personas. He had numerous affairs with women, which often ended in court. He had an 11-year relationship, beginning in 1897, with soprano Ada Giachetti, who had left her husband and son for the much younger tenor. She bore Caruso two sons, then ran off with the family chauffeur. Three years later, Giachetti sued Caruso for attempting to damage her career and for theft of her jewelry. The suit was eventually dismissed.
Caruso was not exonerated, however, in what became known as the "Monkey House Case." On November 16, 1906, Caruso went to the Monkey House in the Central Park Zoo, one of his favorite retreats in his adopted hometown of New York City. There a young woman accused him of pinching her bottom. A policeman on the scene immediately took Caruso--confused and sobbing--to jail. The woman failed to appear at the consequent trial, and police were unable to produce any witnesses other than the arresting officer, who turned out to have been best man at the accuser's wedding. The judge found Caruso guilty of disorderly conduct and fined him ten dollars. The public, for its part, though initially unsure of Caruso's innocence, soon returned to its thunderous approval of his performances.
Despite these episodes, Caruso's life outside the theater was not entirely tumultuous. His marriage to Dorothy Park Benjamin in 1918 was happy and secure. His celebrated earnings allowed him to collect art, stamps, and coins. His clothing and furnishings were luxurious. He ate with gusto. And he was extremely generous. A gifted caricaturist, Caruso often gave drawings away. He would fill his pockets with gold coins and shower stagehands with them at the end of Christmastime productions. He also supported many family members, gave numerous charity concerts, and helped raise millions of dollars for the Allied cause during World War I. This remarkable man even paid his taxes early. "If I wait, something might happen to me, then it would be hard to collect," Caruso reasoned, as recounted by Kobler. "Now I pay, then if something happen to me the money belongs to the United States, and that is good."
Caruso's expansive approach to life, however, rendered his own short. Constant recording and performance demands and the singer's unchecked appetites took their toll on his health; he died in Naples, in 1921, from pneumonia and peritonitis. He was 48 years old. "Caruso may have been a greater master of comedy than tragedy," Great Caruso author Scott wrote, "yet there was no levity in his approach to his art, for as each year passed and he became an ever more celebrated singer, his fame--ably demonstrated by frequent new issues of ever improving records--made increasing demands of him. In those last years he rode a tiger."
Enrico Caruso's Career
Enrico Caruso's Awards
Order of the Commendatore of the Crown of Italy; Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honor; Order of the Crown Eagle of Prussia; honorary captain of the New York City Police Department.
- Selective Works
- Enrico Caruso: 21 Favorite Arias RCA, 1987.
- Enrico Caruso Pearl, 1988.
- Enrico Caruso in Arias, Duets, and Songs Supraphon, 1988.
- Caruso in Opera Nimbus, 1989.
- Caruso in Song Nimbus, 1990.
- The Complete Caruso BMG Classics, 1990.
- Enrico Caruso in Opera: Early New York Recordings (1904-06) Conifer, 1990.
- The Caruso Edition: Volume 1 (1902-1908) Pearl, 1991.
- The Caruso Edition: Volume 2 (1908-1912) Pearl, 1991.
- The Caruso Edition: Volume 3 (1912-1916) Pearl, 1991.
- The Caruso Edition: Volume 4 (1916-1921) Pearl, 1991.
- Caruso in Ensemble Nimbus, 1992.
- Addio Mia Bella Napoli Replay/Qualiton, 1993.
- Caruso, Enrico, Jr., and Andrew Farkas, Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family, Amadeus Press, 1990.
- Greenfeld, Howard, Caruso, Putnam, 1983.
- Jackson, Stanley, Caruso, Stein & Day, 1972.
- Scott, Michael, The Great Caruso, Knopf, 1988.
- Periodicals American Heritage, February/March 1984.
- Economist, March 9, 1991.
- New Republic, August 8, 1988.
- New York Times, January 6, 1991.
- --Rob Nagel